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Innocuous Intersectionality? The Politics in Handedness Research

Sat, September 2, 4:00 to 5:30pm, Sheraton Boston, 3, Kent

Abstract

Scientific classifications of hand skill and preference seem innocuous, but they have historically been and continue to be highly political. Throughout the past 150 years, measuring left- and right-handedness in different populations fed into stereotypical ideas of hierarchical brain typologies. In the 1860s, Paul Broca suggested that ‘normal’ individuals are right-handed because they are left-brained. Subsequently, brain and mind scientists employed anatomical studies to explain the correlation between left-handedness and inferior intellectual abilities or criminal tendencies, thereby providing scientific foundations for the stigmatization of left-handers. From the 1960s through the 1980s, psychologists reframed the association of handedness and brain asymmetry in genetic terms. They connected left-handedness with a ‘risk of’ various psychiatric illnesses and learning disorders. In the 1980s, neurologists introduced a hormonal theory of handedness, linking ‘abnormal’ intrauterine testosterone exposure with left-handedness, immune disorders, learning disabilities, and sexual deviance. This paper draws from oral histories, archival records, and scientific publications from Europe and North America. Engaging feminist STS and the history and philosophy of classification, I illustrate that the three-step cerebralization of handedness (anatomical, genetic, hormonal) parallels the historical essentialization of race, sex/gender, sexual orientation, and intelligence. In particular, each period exhibits a distinct form of ‘neuro-reductionism’. I argue that critiques of scientific typologies should be intersectional on two levels: attention to socio-political intersectionality reveals the contingency and discriminatory potential of all classification systems; and epistemic intersectionality accounts for the specific reductive mechanisms and promises at play in anatomical, genetic, and hormonal approaches to brains, entire bodies, and populations.

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